Humble Horizons Montessori

Navigating Distance Ed: What exactly are we doing?

We have jumped outta the distance ed plane while we build our parachute on the way down. One day, we literally volun-told our nation’s educators and parents to suddenly become entry-level, untrained distance education specialists and stay-at-home teacher-parents. And boy, that has been one heck of an experience.

As we plummet our way down the Coronavirus 2020 skydive, I reflect and can’t help but acknowledge that we don’t always know what we’re were doing, exactly. But we’re trying our “best” anyway. Some people are adapting better than others out there. So I thought I would share some approaches that I have been using to help my parent-friends manage the triage of suddenly having to stay-at-home teacher their own children over the world wide web, help my teacher friends meet the demands of work, and some general reflections on Montessori-meets-distance-Ed.

I HELPED ONE FRIEND CREATE THE FOLLOWING EMAIL FOR HER KIDS’ TEACHER:

  1. Are you gonna record my child’s weekly online meetings?  And if not, why not?  Is it even possible to record these video sessions?
  2. What if we miss it, because we don’t own a tablet, or we only have one computer in this family and parents must work remotely, or because we have poor internet connection? What’s the next step? 
  3. Can we have paper packets mailed to us the old school way, or made available for PDF download? 
  4. Is anything during these online meetings, and throughout the remainder of distance ed going to be critical information that my child needs in order to graduate to the next grade level?
  5. If my child doesn’t learn any of these critical topics sufficiently, are they going to fail the first grade? Are there going to be remediation opportunities?
  6. Can you please give parents a written summary of the key concepts and information that is delivered in each video, to complement the video?  Parents would like to know what our children are working on so that we know how to help them learn if they don’t understand the information.
  7. Can you give parents a general guideline of what we should be working on every day?  What subjects should we be working on, and what specific skills should we be working on for each subject? How long should we be working on each subject?  

I CREATED A SURVEY THAT I EMAILED OUT TO THE PARENTS IN MY CLASSROOM

I used SurveyMonkey.com to create a 10-question survey that I asked all of the parents in my class. I wanted to know very specifically what I was working with, and what the need was for my families. I believe that I’m in my professional position to serve real people, with real needs, and real kids who are each on their own developmental path (in Montessori we follow the lead of the individual, we don’t just mass all the kids together and assume they’re all at the same place cognitively or developmentally).

Each of my children and their families are living in their own individual homes, with their own individual resources currently available to them, or currently lacking. Each family is also living through this pandemic from their own unique circumstantial frame of reference. So while it may be easy enough to pump out some sort of generalized zoom meeting, the truth is I’m not seeing all of my families showing up for zoom meetings. Which means I must assume that the needs of the families who aren’t showing up are either unmet, met so well that they don’t need Zoom meetings, or perhaps they just wholly don’t subscribe to screen time for young children.

I believe it’s my job to do some basic research, continue in my mission of human service, and to show up for my families and students (teacher basics 101, hello). My thoughts might not be identical to the admin’s agenda at my school; nor might my thoughts match the thought process of someone trying to run an entire school over the world wide web. The admin of a school has to deal with the business end of things, and they have the whooooole student body to address. And I have a tremendous amount of compassion for that undertaking, you don’t even know. But for me as a teacher, of just one classroom, meeting the individualized needs of the people in my classroom is where my heart and mind operate from. Continuing to serve my families is within my capacity, regardless of my position at my school or our circumstances worldwide. So I felt it was best to make a classroom-specific survey, rather than to just be bossy and “do what I think could work”; or to just fade into the background and only do what admin tells me.

Questions I included in my classroom-specific survey were things like:

  • How is each of my families genuinely coping through this unprecedented time?
  • What kind of technology does each family have at home, and how tech-savvy are they?
  • How much screen time does their child currently get and how long do they think their child is likely to pay attention during a zoom or online meeting? (the most popular answer for a classroom of toddlers was “15 minutes”.)
  • How often would they like digital remote lessons or resources? (the most popular answer for toddlers was “once a week”)
  • Specifically what areas do they observe themselves and their child needing the most support? Do they want activity ideas, do they want behavioral support, do they need movement activities– what do they need?

The results of my survey significantly helped me get a true feel for where my class falls through all of this, on average, for the people who are very well resourced, and for the people who are legit struggling. So one of the best pieces of advice I have is don’t just launch something without first learning and observing the needs of your school’s families. That is basic Montessori– observe, observe, observe. We can’t observe IRL, so we have to use technology and creativity/ innovation to continue serving our families using the Montessori framework. I think this is a huge area where a lot of distance ed is possibly going wrong. They’re just creating things from the “school” side without acknowledging the realities of the “home” (recipient) side of things.

I HAVE REACHED OUT TO SOME OF MY TEACHER FRIENDS WITH TIPS FOR DESIGNING REMOTE LESSONS FOR ZOOM

My top advice to my teacher friends has been to keep it very simple. Keep it painfully simple. Because we are not operating in person. I also advised that they use curriculum webs to generate ideas, create a structure of delivery that works for them (maybe each day of the week is a different subject); use the same lesson plan for all of your classes that day, and grade the difficulty up or down depending on the age of your students. And use the Montessori method to your advantage– don’t discard it because you feel disempowered thanks to online learning platforms being your new teaching modality.

Try to come up with ideas that get the children actively participating in whatever is being taught. What can they do, with what they have at home, from behind a screen? Children can draw on paper from home and show their drawings to the camera. They can dance, sing, and do finger plays. They can talk to each other and to their teacher. They can ask and answer questions. They can move their bodies as the teacher demonstrates. They can bring something tangible to the zoom like an item of a certain theme or color, or a musical instrument they can play. Some of them can even read words or tell you what they see in pictures. The goal, then, particularly for Montessorians, is to shoot for “hands-on-from-home”, interactive, yet remote learning experiences.

FOR TEACHERS, THIS WHOLE SITUATION IS STRESSFUL. BUT TEACHERS WILL JUST DEAL, AND CREATE SOLUTIONS BECAUSE THAT’S TEACHING AT ITS CORE. You could damn near kill us and we’ll just do our job and power through.

Nevertheless, walking through novel coronavirus is novel-stressful for teachers in two regards.

First of all, just like all the now teacher-parents who suddenly are expected to work from home, teachers are humans first. We also have our own life and maybe other lives we have to manage in the thick of all of this. And the reality of how the field of education has been impacted by COVID-19 is that teachers fall into one of two camps: either you still have a job and must now distance-ed-tech-teach from home; or you got furloughed because your private school can’t afford to keep you paid even if it was possible to innovate and come up with ways to work from home. So there’s that whole reality.

Like… is your child’s teacher even surviving this financially? Is your child’s teacher supported emotionally? Do they have companionship through all of this, or are they in distanced isolation? This is real life; and we must remember that teachers are humans first. Not all parents may have the space to even realize that a lot of teachers are facing their own stressors at home while they teach from home. Or that some teachers and teacher’s assistants don’t technically even have jobs right now.

Those details might be the farthest thing from parents’ minds as they scramble to parent-teach-work from home; while they try to figure out how they’re going to keep their children fed without work, while they care for sick loved ones, or worry that they could bring this virus home to their babies and loved ones from the front lines. Just to prove a point, not one parent has reached out to email me during any of this, and ask me how I’m doing, or if I need anything. I don’t blame them for that, I just understand that in the eyes of parents and even admin, teachers aren’t fully human. And that’s because we’re doing superhuman amounts of work every day, for very low pay, and very low social recognition.

I think it’s safe to say that a number of us teachers continue to support families; and provide online resources –straight out of the goodness of our hearts even though we’re not going to continue to get paid through the duration of this quarantine. And even if we might just find ourselves in the survival struggle, we continue to deliver.

SHOULD YOUR SCHOOL EVEN BE ATTEMPTING TO DELIVER ONLINE DISTANCT EDUCATION?

Then there’s the novel-stressor of learning how to teach from a distance, over the world wide web. Some educators are forced to suddenly become distance ed specialists, which they have never done before in their entire lives And classically trained teachers are being asked to literally design an entire nonexistent digital curriculum from the ground up, every single day. Legend has it, some teachers are now working harder than they ever have in order to produce online education for the first time in their school’s entire history of existence. Just to put this into tangible perspective, I know of one Montessori school that has existed since the 1940s. And never, ever has their school delivered remote online education.

Which brings me to my next, very valid point: (I can’t speak on behalf of public school teachers, but) I can tell you hands down that there is no such thing as a Montessori guide who signed up to be a children’s distance ed specialist. Montikids is the closest we have ever come as a field. Why? Because that’s literally not ever what Dr. Maria Montessori had in mind behind the inception of the Montessori Method. Montessori education was actually the answer to the already flawed educational status quo where children sat in desks, talked at by the teacher all day in schools, and got corporeal punishment if they were disobedient.

This is the logic behind the Montessori method: Dr. Montessori basically answered the question, “how can we deliver an educational format that actually serves the mind, body, and spirit of the child? Because having them sit at desks and listen to the teacher all day does not work. A-ha! I have this entire hands-on, child-led, activity-based pedagogy that I can unfold for my community in this place called the Casa Dei Bambini. Bring the children to me!”, she said, “and I’ll show my community how to do education better”. A quote from Dr. Montessori said, in 1918 by the way, over 100 years ago :

Today we hold the pupils in school, restricted by those instruments so degrading to the body and spirit, the desk–and material prizes and punishments. Our aim in all this is to reduce them to the discipline of immobility and silence, to lead them–where? Far too often toward no definite end”.

She also said “The situation would be very much the same if we should place a teacher who, according to our conception of the term, is scientifically prepared, in one of the public schools where the children are repressed in the spontaneous expression of their personality till they are almost like dead beings. In such a school, the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to his place, THE DESK, spreading useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired.”

If your school claims to be a Montessori school, the children were never, ever meant to be sitting at desks (let alone sitting in a chair staring at an electronic device in order to learn ). I’m sorry; but as an internationally-trained, “theory devout” professional Montessorian, I feel like screaming at the top of my lungs sometimes that Montessori education is not and was never meant to be delivered in any format where the child is required to sit there and do nothing with their body, while information is passively delivered to them like it’s public school delivered via computer screen. That is not our mission as Montessorians. And if your school suddenly thinks that’s what you ought to be doing, you are sorely misguided in your mission.

And yet, here these Montessori schools are, jumping on the digital distance ed bandwagon, because doing something seems better than doing nothing. Because private Montessori schools are businesses that are losing money by the hour thanks to coronavirus. And on the business end, private Montessori schools are afraid of going under. And maybe as educators we feel powerless and guilty to not continue educating the kids through this pandemic. Clearly, as a society, we are afraid to take a break from education for too long. Like, could we not just as easily send all the kids on “break” right now; and then maybe this summer after this virus passes, we continue brick-and-mortar education and just make sure we take a one-week “COVID-19 reset” before Fall begins?

The truth is that not all of our Montessori schools are going to make it through this pandemic. But since people feel empowered when they can do something, do anything; rather than sit idly by while their businesses disintegrate, private Montessori schools are now desperately trying to deliver education using online videos rather than sitting back and critically asking, “if there is already a way to deliver the Montessori method, as it was designed, from within the home, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and perhaps abandon the Montessori method altogether, how could that be a possibility?” .

Hint: that question has already been answered, at least for 0-3 AMI montessori. We are just as professionally prepared to deliver Montessori in schools as we are to deliver individualized, in-home consultations and in-home environmental design. And basically, THAT is what each family in your school deserves to receive during this pandemic. For your trained guides to offer individualized, remote in-home consultations with activity recommendations based on the toys and supplies parents have; and ongoing activity ideas and observational monitoring of each child’s progress. Like once every two weeks we try to digitally observe what that child is doing at home, and we continue to guide and support the parents from afar.

WHY AREN’T WE LOOKING TO THE LEADING EXPERTS IN TECHNOLOGICAL EDUCATION?

Let’s take a critical look at online education for younger children. It DOES exist already, for the record. And it has already existed in other countries for a long time, typically for the purposes of teaching English overseas. Rather than working so hard to try and force teachers to “reinvent the wheel” on a daily basis, what every school ought to be doing right now is looking to the current leaders of online education; and emulating the top most successful and innovative online educational platforms that already exist.

You should be learning their strategies, and trying to rapidly replicate their model to suit the needs of your school’s distinct clientele and learning goals. That’s where every school admin should have started. You should NOT have just jumped to zoom. Zoom has not been a longstanding leader in educational technology. Zoom was designed as an online meeting platform for grown ups. It was never actually designed to be used for education at all. We have just innovated and are now using it as such. And IMHO Zoom ought to be paying every teacher in this country a thank-you stimulus check for the sharp rise in Zoom business. You’re welcome, zoom.

I hate to burst your bubble of ignorance, but a basic google search of “best k-12 online education for children” will show you what already exists out there. This whole distance ed thing is not some novel creation that has suddenly transpired out of nowhere during quarantine, like dalgona coffee. Oh no. If I was a parent who had money and an internet connection, who cared about my children’s actual learning, I would attempt to get my kid enrolled in a pre-existing, already well-established, accredited online school for k-12 if that was somehow a possibility. And then when this all blows over, I would send my kid back to a brick-and-mortar school.

To those pre-existing online schools, really you guys should be opening up your doors right now to “emergency enrollments” and capitalizing on raking in the cash through this pandemic. You should be consulting with both private schools and public school districts and selling your resources to them, and capitalizing financially, while working in support of the current social crisis.

Instead, all the teachers are scrambling every day, making up online curriculum by the seat of your pants, using pinterest and social media, and lord knows what else, in order to produce ideas for what children can do over a zoom meeting.

WHO OUT THERE IS NOT STRUGGLING TO DELIVER DISTANCE ED, ONLINE? LET’S LOOK TO THEM AS “PEER MODELS”, AS MONTESSORI WOULD SAY.

The teachers who are not currently struggling through this work from home shenanigan are practical skills teachers. All the dance classes being taught online are friggin’ amazing right now. I’m so stoked to be learning Tahitian dance from some of the best professional Tahitian dancers in the world thanks to this pandemic. The online yoga classes, the online cooking classes, online language classes– zero struggle there in those “subjects”. I did a dance class online yesterday that over 700 people showed up for. To put that into perspective, I used to attend lecture at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and one of the largest lecture halls seated 300 students at its max capacity.

Why do certain “subjects” thrive in distance ed, online formats? Because those skills strike the happy balance of being both “hands-on-from-home” and tech-delivery-friendly. Any format of learning that is basically monkey-see-monkey-do, which permits people to “see” on the internet, and try to “do” from the comfort of their own home, is going to thrive while taught over an internet platform. That is the formula for online and distance ed success. Merely producing a random zoom video is not necessarily going to teach anything truly transformative, or of functional and developmental value. Particularly to younger children.

I genuinely believe that if you are creative and innovative enough, it is possible to deliver quality education from the home. But I also know that “educating” is one role, and “parenting” is another role, and “working from home” is yet another role. So if we want to help parents find a way to continue their children’s education away from school, during a time where we are all forced to stay indoors, and where our basic survival needs might not even be met, we definitely have to think a lot more critically.

As for Montessori’s ability to innovate, adapt, and thrive through this pandemic situation, the answer is already there for 0-3: across human history children under three typically did not attend brick and mortar schools. Even Dr. Montessori agreed that children under three were not quite old enough to be expected to sit at the dreaded desk and behave; and that the traditional format of education even in her time was designed to be embarked upon at the point when a child was deemed “fit” for school– the point when they were mature enough to sit at a desk, keep still, keep quiet, pay attention, and follow the instructions.

What that means for parents of children 3 and under is that Montessori education is luckily already designed to be delivered right in the comfort of your very own home. But it is going to require that the parents are trained to observe and understand the nature of the young child; for parents to learn the activities and skills that young children can learn to do and love to do; and to have the home environment set up in order to support the child’s learning and behavior. All you need, in order to get that information, is access to a professionally trained 0-3 Montessori guide (🙋🏽), and an internet connection with video capability. Delivering Montessori “from home” does not mean we have to have babies sitting in front of zoom meetings in order to learn.

HOW CAN ZOOM HELP OUR YOUNGEST LEARNERS?

What I do believe zoom helps us all achieve though, is continued remote social connectedness; and this should not disappear from your child’s reality. If you don’t agree that your child ought to be educated over the world wide web, I fully get it. In 0-3 AMI Montessori we do not advise screen time for young children. I support the belief that screens have little place in the life of a young child. But because we are all in this unprecedented quarantine/ confinement phase of the pandemic, I do actually strongly encourage all parents to be in touch with the peers from your child’s classroom remotely; and set up brief weekly virtual socialization.

Your child’s school social life is a very meaningful part of their reality. This whole virus does not compute to a young child, and they are not going to understand where everyone disappeared to all of a sudden. But Young children absolutely do form tight and meaningful friendships. And they absolutely do know on some level that life has changed. They fully are aware of when it is time to go school, and when it is time to stay home. And their social bonds help them develop.

Let your kids talk to each other remotely, let them show each other their toys from home. Let them sing and dance together. This will keep your child socially connected and keep their spirits higher through this period of sudden change and unpredictability. It will also give your child something to look forward to across time if you are able to keep your digital play dates consistent, and scheduled at predictable times (like every Friday at 3pm is your child’s computer playdate with Suzy). Don’t expect perfection, and don’t feel bad if the virtual play dates don’t last longer than 15 minutes tops. Just let your child see their friends. I’ll write another post on how to best facilitate an online playdate soon.

Another way Zoom continues to help our youngest learners is through those “hands-on-from-home” and “tech-delivery-friendly” kids classes, like dance, maybe martial arts, and music. Keep doing those kinds of extracurriculars if your kid already loves them. I’ve seen some snippets from Gymboree Oahu and those kids are fully engaging from home, which is awesome.

Hang in there, everyone! The day WILL come when all of this is history. But until then, I’m here to help in any way I can through these posts.

Do you have a post request? Send me an email at humblehorizonsmontessori@gmail.com

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